You pick your moments with the McLaren F1. To drive it safely on British roads, with consideration to other road users, requires considerable mental discipline. You have to accept that, save on empty autobahns, there is no way you will sample the F1’s performance potential safely and legally on a public highway. The truth is that, even for drivers of exceptional experience and skill, driving the McLaren fast in public is an exercise in restraint.
For this is a car that can exit a curve at 60mph onto a straight and, just 11.4sec later, be travelling at 160mph. This is a car that will accelerate from 100 to 200mph considerably faster than most quick cars will reach 100mph from a standstill. This is a car which, unless driven with a cool head, could land you in greater trouble than you could imagine. As we said, you pick your moments.
Happily, though, it is a car that is both simple and enjoyable to drive slowly. The engine, despite having a specific output of 103bhp per litre, the highest of any normally aspirated production engine, uses its capacity and variable valve timing to summon huge chunks of torque from idle onwards.
The clutch is a little lighter that you’d expect given the power it must transmit, and it bites gently. The engine has no flywheel so the revs don’t so much fall as vanish when you lift your right foot, but so swift is the six-speed gearbox that changing gear smoothly is simple.
Threading your way through town, the F1 seems almost sedate. Behind you the V12 whirrs softly to itself, you adapt to the central driving position without thinking about it and, thanks to the F1 being no wider than a Toyota Supra, gaps are easy to negotiate. Once you reach the city limits, slot the lever into sixth and you could spend hours wandering around the lanes at 60mph and 2000rpm. But this is not what the F1 is for.
We used two proving grounds for this test: first there was our usual visit to Millbrook in Bedfordshire to exploit the superb grippy surface that all our test cars enjoy, then we left for the Bruntingthorpe test track in Leicestershire with its two-mile runway to record the performance figures that, of all production cars in the history of the motor car, only the F1 could produce.
Starting a world record breaking acceleration run in an F1 is easier than you’d think. There are cars with considerably less than half the F1’s power that will prove trickier. Because the engine has no turbos, just good old fashioned cubic capacity with an icing of high-tech variable valve timing, instant and reliable torque is available everywhere. You just call up about 2500rpm on the large, central rev counter and gently feed in the clutch.
If you get it right, your brain will be too preoccupied with keeping the rear tyres on the edge of wheelspin and the bark coming through the rear bulkhead to appreciate just how fast you are travelling. You’ll need to be quick with the six-speed gearbox to hook second before the engine slams into its 7500rpm limiter. But even before your left foot touches the clutch, you’ll be doing more than 60mph, just 3.2sec from rest.
And only now will you start to appreciate how fast this car is because, until now, you’ve only been using part throttle. How fast? So fast that it’s actually uncomfortable on first acquaintance. As the car shoots forward, the acceleration penetrates right through to your deepest internal organs. In second gear, the F1 added 10mph per each half second. You’ll pass 100mph in third, having been mobile for 6.3sec. The second-fastest car we have tested, Jaguar’s XJ220, asked for 7.9sec for the same measure. And still the McLaren is not in its stride.
It does 0-120mph in 9.2sec, a decent enough 0-60mph time for a hot hatch. It will reach 150mph from rest quicker than the new Porsche 911 will reach 100mph. But the statistic to end them all is this: in sixth gear, it will cover 180-200mph in 7.6sec. A Ferrari 512 TR needs longer to do 50-70mph in fifth.
Even at 200mph the F1, as sure and stable as it was at 100mph, accelerates hard. Had we enough Tarmac, we have no doubt that it would finally stop accelerating at its rev limiter in top which, taking tyre growth into account, would be somewhere the far side of 230mph. A prototype with only about 580bhp has achieved 231mph – and that on a banked circuit in 40deg C heat, both of which would serve to blunt its potential.
Its in-gear performance is similarly stupefying. How does 60-80mph in second in 1.2sec grab you, or 90-110mph in third in just 1.7sec? Or the fact that every single 20mph increment between 30mph and 130mph in fourth is dispatched within a tenth of 2.2sec? It doesn’t slow much in fifth either, every increment between 30mph and 160mph taking 3.0sec flat or less. But it is sixth, geared to allow the car to reach beyond 230mph, that stretches belief beyond breaking point.
Our standard measure for top gear flexibility, aimed at cars with maximum speeds of about half the McLaren’s, is 50-70mph. The F1 covers the ground in 3.7sec, blitzing the next fastest production car we have tested (the TVR Griffith 500) by 1.7sec.
For its flexibility, throttle response and power alone, this V12 would probably wrest the title of world’s best engine from the Ferrari 512 TR. But the sound it makes puts the issue beyond doubt. Smooth, subtle and, above all, quiet when you want it to be, the F1 gives everything you have ever wanted from an engine note when the throttle is opened wide.
Full throttle at 60mph in sixth produces a noise closer to that of the Mustang in Bullitt, only louder. It’s a growling crackle that bores into your brain at just the glorious side of painful. Drop four gears and repeat the exercise and only those who have seen the film Le Mans or were present at endurance races in the early 70s will have any inkling of the complexity and savagery of its utterly pure V12 howl. It is the finest noise any of us here have ever heard from a production road car.
If there is room to carp in this section, the F1’s ultra-quick gearbox attracted mild criticism from some who drove it. No one argued about the ratios which, apart from the necessarily long sixth, are stacked as close as you could wish, but many felt that a touch more weight and a shade less travel in the admittedly short-throw lever would have been more in keeping with the F1’s character.
One tester also observed that, for the money, a sequential box could be expected; others preferred the convenience of skipping gears that a conventional gate and the monster torque allow.
At a more mundane level, reverse proved unusually tricky and frequently impossible to engage without several attempts, although slotting briefly into second gear before attempting reverse did improve the situation.
We don’t quibble with the McLaren’s ultimate stopping power though even its huge ventilated discs and four-pot monobloc callipers have their work cut out reining in its power. But despite McLaren’s best efforts, we would like more feel through the pedal, which only bites hard if you tread hard. And tread hard you must because, with no servo, even mild deceleration requires twice the pedal effort of a conventional car.
And while we admire the aims behind omitting power assistance and anti-lock brakes from the specification – weight reduction and feel retention – we think for a road car of this potential, the F1 would gain more from their presence than their deletion.